Experimental Theater, Taipei, Taiwan; March 7, 2013
Breathing new life into nanguan music is one of Taipei-based choreographer Lin Wen-chung’s (林文中) goals, and “Small Nanguan 2” (慢搖·滾) is his second attempt at incorporating the classical musical style that originated in the Chinese province of Fujian into his dance.
Nanguan (南管) is often considered to be slow, old and hard to understand; all reasons why it has fallen out of fashion. While the first two are undoubtedly true, Lin gets round the third by presenting it in ways that link it to the contemporary world. He taps in well to the romantic elements in the music. People did used to use nanguan to express love for one another, and that’s precisely how Lin uses it too, making some social comment along the way.
“Small Nanguan 2” brings together five nanguan musicians and singers, and four modern dancers who portray various relationships between the sexes. There is no narrative as such, Lin preferring to present a series of fragments. There is frequently a sadness and pain in the music. All kinds of permutations of love are here although, just like nanguan, Lin’s choreography often speaks of repressed love, loneliness, and of relationships not allowed, or at least frowned upon by society.
It opens with the dancers prone on the floor scattered around a stage also littered with chairs. The musical instruments are silent. Like a fuse slowly burning, the scene awakens gradually, the performers stirring and the music very gradually ringing out. As the dance develops, Lin’s movement vocabulary is such that unless they are actually singing or playing, most of the time, it’s difficult to tell between musicians, singers and dancers. But in a way, just that coming together of dance and music into a single new form is exactly the point.
While Lin paints some startlingly beautiful images, and has a great knack of making people not doing much ‘speak’ volumes, some of the dance elements between are more forgettable. In attempting to produce a new style through the combination of nanguan and modern dance, Lin has put to the usual modern dance vocabulary to one side. That is fine, but unfortunately he leaves himself with very little to work with in terms of movement. Much of what he gives us in its place is pedestrian, and at times there is far too much repetitive shaking and juddering. It’s when Lin strikes away from this that the work is at its best. One powerful scene, for example, sees the cast repeatedly throw themselves against one of the theatre’s walls.
“Small Nanguan 2” is a long way from a complete fusion. The music is far more powerful and far more emotive than Lin’s movement, which also comes across as being less important that the spoken text, of which there is a lot. Indeed, it’s a work that not only depends on text, but also on understanding that text, one reason why the words (much of which was sung or spoken in holo, a native Taiwanese language) were projected in Mandarin and given out on printed sheets. That text was, though, always spoken with great feeling, and always magnified by the music.
Overall, that slow fuse that is “Small Nanguan 2” never quite sets anything alight. While it has its moments, it doesn’t convince entirely. There are times when it seems not so much a case of modern dance meets nanguan or East meets West, as East meets not much. But experimentation is essential if something new is to be created, and there will always be hiccups along the way. There is enough here to suggest that there is mileage in persevering with the idea of a coming together of the art forms. It’s certainly an interesting combination, and I for one look forward to seeing where Lin takes it next.